By Mike Lillis
West Virginia Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D) and Carte Goodwin (D) on Thursday introduced legislation designed to protect the nation's miners from the very companies they work for.
The proposal is a direct response to April's explosion at southern West Virginia's Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, which killed 29 miners and injured another. Former and current workers at that Massey-owned project have said the company systematically ignored work-safety laws in order to harvest coal more efficiently.
Like the mine-safety bill moving through the House, the Senate proposal would increase fines for safety violations; expand whistleblower protections for employees reporting hazards; empower inspectors to close dangerous mines more easily; and require companies to pay workers if a project is shuttered for safety reasons.
Unlike the House proposal, the Senate bill would apply those reforms to all of the nation's mines. (By contrast, House leaders had scaled back their reforms to include only underground coal mines and a handful of other projects known to emit flammable gasses.)
Both bills would significantly enhance the powers of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to police workplaces nationwide — reforms that Republicans maintain have no place in a mine-safety bill.
GOP leaders are also objecting to the thought of proposing legislative fixes before the cause of the UBB blast is known — an argument Rockefeller has dismissed.
"Even as the investigation into the Upper Big Branch mine continues to move forward, we owe it to the families, and to the miners that still get up and go to work each day, to find real solutions," Rockefeller said Thursday in a statement.
The House bill, approved by the Education and Labor Committee last week, is expected to be considered by the full chamber before year's end. The fate of the Senate bill is less certain.